To the helpers

It can be a wretched business this travelling lifestyle, particularly in India. Dealing with the filth, the smells, the crowded bodies of other fellows as we drag ourselves onto buses and trains to spend hours upon hours sitting or standing or trying to sleep, trying to watch our bags, trying to deflect would-be thieves or beggars or other unwanted attention. So the small kindnesses we are shown on our way make an enormous impression on us – such as when someone helps with directions when all the signs are in Hindi or Gujarati, or when someone goes out of their way to make us feel welcome and helps us organise a phone call or steps in to prevent us from being cheated, or invites us to their home to eat with their family.

And every day something lovely like this happens, so even when we are at our most exhausted and unable to exchange a kind word between us, the sweetness of a stranger will restore us and remind us how lucky we really are.

So from the past 2 days alone, I would like to thank the chai stall owner in Udaipur who beckoned us into his front room at 5.45 am when we were wandering tired and hungry in the dark after another sleepless night on the overnight bus. And his lovely 10-year-old daughter who kept us entertained for the next 2 hours until school with tales of her family, her favourite colours and best friend, and a million questions about exactly what an English bridesmaid wears and does.

Thanks also to Tushaar Shah, the water resources expert in Anand, Gujarat, who waited for me for nearly 3 hours when I was delayed, despite suffering from a bad back and then allowing our conversation to spill into the evening. Thanks also to Sachin Oza at the Development Support Centre for being such a helpful, humorous and knowledgeable guy and sorting out a car and connections for us. And thanks to the restaurant manager at Nisha in Ahmedabad who gave us delicious food when were were wide-eyed with hunger and also finding a national train timetable to help us arrange our next journey.

Ahmedabad is a dirty godforsaken polluted city – not that the citizens have forsaken god, as we discovered during this morning’s early call to prayer. The air here is so bad that the government provides free oxygen bars for the public and street workers. It is also set to be India’s first solar city, whereby all the public electricity provision will be from solar. Laudable as this is, it does seem a little as though the more pressing problem of dirt, sanitation, poverty and smog is being overlooked in order to chase the glamour of solar. The newspapers here every day fill pages on the Slumdog Millionaire film, and have done so for weeks. in the run up to its release last week, there were a number of damning articles and several people are now suing the director for representing Indians in a humiliating light. Since its release most of the coverage has involved reviews or tales of true-life slumdogs who made good, but there have been a substantial number of articles complaining that the West thinks of India in stereotypes of poverty, whereas it is in fact a modern state. I have yet to see the film, although I am going to try to in Delhi next week. But as a Westerner in India, I have to say that the very first impression of India is of extreme dirt, poverty and chaos. It is of course so much more than that and a wonderfully exciting and interesting country full of contradiction. But if the world’s largest democracy does not want to be portrayed as in Slumdog, it should make cleanliness and sanitation an urgent priority at the polls this spring.

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